Efie Gallery shows colourful side of J. K. Bruce-Vanderpuije’s b/w images - GulfToday

Efie Gallery shows colourful side of J. K. Bruce-Vanderpuije’s b/w images


Miss Ghana (left) shares space with former Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Efie Gallery, Dubai, is hosting a show (Jan. 12 – Feb. 20) of the works of one of the icons of modern African photography, J. K. Bruce-Vanderpuije. Titled Unveiling the Shadows of the Past: J. K. Bruce-Vanderpuije - The Hidden Icon of Photography in Africa, the exhibition is curated by Aida Muluneh. Those used to two minute reels and one minute tweets may find the title a little long and the curator’s CV equally so. But if the push of social media comes to the shove of the gallery, it will be the latter that deserves more attention, since time spent with both the photographer and his presenter, no less the host, will be time well spent. J. K. Bruce-Vanderpuije was born in 1899 to the late Emmanuel Vanderpuije and the late Madam Eleanor Afua Bruce of the Otublohum Royal family, in James Town, British Accra, Ghana. His father was an influential Agent of Messrs. J. J. Fisher & Co. Limited, during the 1880s to the 1900s, and was popularly known to be one of the Merchant Princes of the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known. J. K. was educated at the Accra Royal School, the first formal educational institution in the Gold Coast (estd. 1672) at James Town. While attending school, he took up photography as a hobby and after leaving school, he became one of the few photographers in pre-independence Ghana who excelled in the photographer’s profession. (Ghana won independence from the British in 1957).

So attractive and popular were J.K.’s photographs that most government functions were assigned to him. He also designed campaigns for international companies and was the man who captured Major Imray’s shooting incident in 1948, which was later tended as evidence for the crime committed. The single, shooting act became the seed that was sown for Ghana’s independence and the eventual decolonisation of entire Africa. (Imray had shot at Ghanaian soldiers who were protesting non-payment of pay promises. Three were martyred and many injured).

J. K. established the Deo Gratias Photo Studio in 1922 along with his sons Isaac Hudson and Ernest John. It is still working and can arguably be said to be one of the oldest photography studios in Africa, having held its centennial celebrations in 2022. Kate Tamakloe, nee Kate Aku Bruce-Vanderpuije, Isaac Hudson’s daughter, is the current custodian of the long-held family dream company. The granddaughter of J.K Bruce- Vanderpuije and daughter of Isaac Hudson Bruce-Vanderpuije, she is still using the old shutter speed. It has been over a hundred years of operations that have made history; it has won the family a permanent place in Ghanaian history no less than in the world of its fine arts.

Photography at the time was a much bigger deal than it is today — it indicated one’s importance in society. J.K.’s diligence in the operations of the Deo Gratias Studio elevated its status and the first of its kind in buzzling James Town became a centre of attraction. Many Ghanaian photographers trained under J.K.’s leadership and one of his major preoccupations was the nurturing of those who would succeed him. Both his sons, Isaac Hudson Bruce-Vanderpuije and Ernest John Bruce-Vanderpuije, went abroad to study photography. Kate - who was present at the Dubai exhibition inaugural - says she is still discovering unprinted pictures on films and glass plates, and scanning and digitising them.

Curator Aida Muluneh in blue dress greets guests.

Curator Muluneh is an Ethiopian origin photographer and contemporary visual artist, based in Canada. She is the founder of DESTA (Developing and Educating Societies Through the Arts), an organisation that seeks to develop opportunities in the global community for diasporic African artists.  In 2020, she was given the Award for Photographic Curatorship of the Royal Photographic Society. “This exhibition transcends a photographer’s lens, resonating as a poetic catalyst for Africa’s visual history,” she says. “Each frame whispers tales, urging exploration of time’s corridors. Beyond a visual chronicle, it’s a sanctuary of memories, a call to safeguard Africa’s visual heritage. Every photograph is a vessel, capturing a generation’s stories.”  

Two worlds merge into one in the images: Ghanaian traditional heritage and western style modernity. J. K. portrays vibrant street scenes in Accra where western style early 20th century vehicles drive amid a busy marketplace with Ghanaian women balancing items on their head alongside Ghanaian men on bicycles in shorts, a white shirt and a tie; tribal chiefs in their traditional robes boasting beautifully coloured patterns sitting proudly amid a street of parked western cars; a photograph of the second Miss Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, former President of Ghana, dressed in a Kente cloth native to the Akan tribe in Ghana, both beaming with joy; young Ghanaians waiting in line to purchase goods from a mobile butcher’s shop, dressed in shorts, long pants and checkered button down shirts; ceremonial processions where men don both local and western garments marching in step; a Ghanaian newlywed couple standing arm in arm dressed in western attire, with the bride donning a long white wedding gown and the groom wearing a smart black suit with a prominent top hat, both with white gloves, are other striking images. “Bruce-Vanderpuije’s images capture the bitter-sweet beauty of modern-day early 20th century Ghana on the brink of transition as it shifts from British coloial rule to independence,” discovers Rebecca Anne-Proctor in the exhibition text. Now it is up to you to follow up.



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